Sorry is the hardest word to say
Your toddler has inadvertently hit you in excitement. Or, your preschooler has hit you out of anger. Both actions require an apology: one accidental, one intentional. How do you handle this?
Forcing a child to apologize is giving a command and not the way to get a child to comply. The key is to teach your child and not command. But how do you teach your child to say sorry? Especially when empathy is not innate. Infants and children are naturally self-centered for self-preservation. For example, they cry when they are hungry etc.
One key is to use modeling to teach. The book “Parenting with Love & Logic” focuses on this modeling as a key concept in teaching. When you yourself have done something wrong, say so. Look your child in the eyes and apologize meaningfully. The more it is modeled, the more it will become a reality. At about 4 years of age, a child will begin to associate his emotions with the feelings of others. Then around 5, they will start to learn empathy. This is the prime time to teach empathy.
Ask your child the next time an incident occurs: How did hitting that other child make you feel? How did that other child feel? And then ask how they can make it better. Let them think about this a little. The first time or two you may have to help them come up with a solution. The goal is to allow your child the opportunity to “MAKE UP” for their mistakes. This helps children feel remorse while leaving their dignity intact, a key distinction between discipline and punishment.
What if they won’t apologize? Is it better to force an apology? No as this is teaching them to lie if they don’t mean it. And it is also giving a command, which only serves to invite power struggles with you and your child.
Another way to teach is to let natural consequences do the teaching for you: if your child won’t eat what is for dinner then he will be hungry or logical consequences: you broke the neighbors window, now you will have to pay for it.
Multiple studies have shown that physical punishment results in the opposite of the intended result. The last thing a parent wants is an angry or submissive child.
If our goal is to teach with consequences, it is equally important for your child to experience positive consequences such as rewards for their good behavior as it is negative consequences for bad behavior.
How do you as the adult forgive your child at a time when you may feel extremely angry? Focus on the child’s behavior, which was wrong. “Your behavior was very naughty and this makes me angry. But, I still love you.” They have to know that they are loved. In fact because toddlers cannot distinguish between “their selves” and “their behavior”, they may feel shame (the belief that they are bad) instead of the far healthier remorse. Focusing on the behavior and reassuring your child that you love them will guard against them feeling shame.
Additionally, give your child an appropriate venue to safely express their emotion. So when they hit out of anger, feed them the appropriate behavior for this situation. You can say: “It is ok to tell me your angry but don’t hit. Hitting hurts.” I vividly recall the pride I felt when our son understood this concept and he verbalized “I am so angry at you mama!”
If your child repeatedly doesn’t show empathy or remorse then this may be a reason to be concerned that there is an underlying disorder such as Asperger’s Syndrome, autism or one of the autism spectrum disorders. If there is a cause for concern, talk to your doctor.
For additional information, I recommend: “Parenting with Love & Logic” by Foster Cline and Jim Fay and When you say “thank you” mean it: And 11 other lessons for instilling lifelong values in your children by Mary O’Donohue.
What has been your experience with teaching forgiveness?
This article first appeared in Woman Today Magazine